Judging the Weekly’s annual 101-word short story contest usually entails a lot of fun.
OK, maybe that’s hyperbolic. It entails some fun.
The panel (also hyperbolic – it’s more of a rag-tag group of grumpy conscripts who grunt affirmatively when asked, “Wanna help judge?”) usually gathers at one of the long tables at The Press Club, located in the ground-floor retail space of the Weekly’s building at Fremont and Williams in Seaside. There are snacks, there are beverages. Office Manager Linda Maceira brings printouts of the stories. We sit and read and give each one a ranking on a scale of five to one, with five being the best. The stories make their way around the table, we ferociously question and even mock each other’s judgment, and on it goes until we have a winner, a second – and third-place finalist and the best of the rest.
We didn’t know what to expect in this pandemic year. Just a few days before the deadline, we had only received about 80 entries. We got it. People are tired, and somewhat uninspired. And writing short and clever and compelling is hard even in the best of times, much less now.
But then, the floodgates opened. By the time we hit the contest deadline at 5pm on Dec. 7, more than 300 stories arrived. They chronicle pandemic fever dreams, cooking things that shouldn’t be food, the sorrow of loss, the pain of life (there was a lot of pain in this year’s entries, and a good deal of violence) and the joy of a well-placed pun.
This year, there was no good-natured grousing and no handing each other the pretzel bag as the stories make their way around that long table. Instead, Maceira scanned in every entry that was handwritten and compiled all the ones emailed in, into a PDF. Scoring was done on a spreadsheet, which left little room for me to question other people’s love of one story over another, although Editor Sara Rubin at one point messaged the entire group, “Y’all are a low-scoring critical bunch.”
“Also,” she added, “someone has to be the one to call that teacher and tell her that her fifth-grade students are homicidal maniacs.”
We kept reading.
“You’re never gonna make it,” Publisher Erik Cushman kept messaging me, starting at about 4:45pm as we were all reading and scoring to a deadline of 6pm. Every four minutes or so – ding, the Google hangout chime rang – “You’re never gonna make it.” Since I love proving him wrong, I made it.
So here we are. 300-plus stories read, 300-plus stories judged, the top TK chosen to run in this issue. While not every piece we received makes it on the page, of course, every single bit of your creative work was read and considered. For caring enough to submit, we can’t thank you enough. Now go wash your hands and moisturize your cuticles.
And if you’re a fifth-grader, keep writing.
Judged by Publisher Erik Cushman, Managing Editor Mary Duan, Art Director Karen Loutzenheiser, Office Manager Linda Maceira, Business Development Manager Keely Richter and Editor Sara Rubin.
Ding Dong Ditch
Somebody stole Milo’s sweats off his porch. It was the only explanation. The sweats he had ordered last week, that he hoped to wear until the vaccine made life normal again.
If Milo now ordered more sweats, would they get stolen too? He briefly considered buying one of those doorbells with a camera in it, but then ran into a news story about a recall on those doorbells, made by Ring, because some of them were accidentally catching fire. Someone online commented, “Johnny Cash has been warning us about this for decades.” LOL, Milo thought, though he didn’t laugh out loud.
Sam Saunders, Orinda
In closed session, the school board winced unconvinced. Donaldson stood during the hearing on his dismissal. Hitting kids, again. Taping their mouths shut. Pulling the long black Indian hair. Donaldson threatens them if they ratted to Principal Madonna or sus mamas. In the next classroom, Mr. Sarmiento hears crying through the walls. School board 3-2 in open session voted out to dismiss; his older gabacho male teacher friends boo. Hearing runs long, las madres have gone; for campesinos, the day begins at 4am.
Barrio kids read two years below grade level. Insult upon injury and the dream is still deferred.
Gary Karnes, Pacific Grove
Third Place (4-Way Tie)
In These Times
After the final vote had been cast, Donna declared victory, claiming a baseless landslide. She boasted that her 101-word short story entry got the most votes of any story ever written for the Monterey County Weekly contest. She demanded all losers concede, insisting official vote tallies were wrong. She was the undisputed winner. Her supporters took to the streets. Her lawyers ordered vote recounts and recounts of recounts. Their lawsuits spread like an uncontained virus. Insistent on her victory, her followers partied in crowded homes and banquet halls. Yet, Donna’s short story, “Pardon Me,” never made it to print.
Judy Dow, Monterey
“Over here,” said Mark.
“OMG,” said Katie, “it’s a regular slugfest today.”
The fog had been heavy the night before. The animals slowly slithered back into the brambles as the sun peeked over the trees.
An unleashed dachshund ran up, squeezing between the couple’s legs. It growled and bit the creature. Thoroughly disgusted, it whipped its head to one side. The yellow invertebrate arced through the air, landing at the feet of a jogger who shrieked and stomped down hard.
Greenish fluid oozed from a small puncture.
“What did we decide?” asked Katie. “Are we meeting Chad and Becky for brunch?”
John Schaidler, Monterey
A Beer A Page
In the military, he wrote letters for the loved ones of his fellow servicemen, who admired his style and paid him a quarter a page.
Discharged and dismayed, he settled in a city with many self-imposed exiles.
His typewriter on the bar, a sheaf of white paper in his bag, he’d note the points his client wanted him to make, and begin typing.
If anyone spoke to him then, others would shush them.
He’d read the finished letter aloud. Accepted, he’d fold it, place it in a blank envelope, hand it to the happy employer, and collect his beer.
Peter Mehren, Pacific Grove
Who Was That Masked Man
Rounding the corner he caught a glimpse of his prize—Super Ultra Soft. The lone package sat atop an otherwise empty shelf. He grinned as he plucked it, practically skipping down the shiny barren aisle.
She turned into the aisle, her cart filled with toddler and her belly filled with baby, her eyes furtively glancing, scanning, then saddening at the emptiness. As she stood frozen, hemelted.
He tipped his hat as he met her gaze, his eyes crinkling above his mask.
He grasped her prize and placed it ultra-softly into her cart.
Susan Latina-Sterrett, Salinas
of The Rest
Ritual is Work
Planning a ritual sacrifice is harder than you think. It’s actually pretty difficult getting enough people together. You need 13 for the circle, plus one in the middle with a knife. Can’t be just any knife, either. Amazon doesn’t have everything, it turns out; had to order the anointed sacrificial kris from Indonesia. It only barely arrived in time. So much work and wouldn’t you know it, the goat wasn’t a virgin after all. Gave birth to three kids right there on the grass under the Blood Moon.
Sam Lawrence, Marina
“Welcome to the Food Festival Hot Tub Party!”
“Here’s my money, now where’s this culinary genius who’ll guide me through this legendary cookout?”
“Chef’s under the banner: Au Jus, made just for you.”
“Remember to disrobe before entering this hot tub.”
“Fascinating that you’re adding fragrant spice to this rolling water.”
“Dive in. We love having you for dinner.”
“Adieu. Enjoy this gradual warming. Once the onions tenderize, you’ll be beyond peace.”
Chef continued turning the heat up.
“Love Me Tender” played in the background.
“Au jus! Worth waiting for such fall of the bones flavor.”
Linda Iversen Johnson, Pacific Grove
Her pink dress, the color of a baby pig, decorated with lace and buttons, long and wide. Irish music plays in the background, she movies with the loud vibrations of the song, yet no wobble will let her fall. Her cheeks are rosy on her pale face, the glossy lipstick shimmers in the dim light. A tap on a glass with a spoon, a holler of excitement for people to gather around, though she does not move. They gather around her, raise a knife, and slice. Everyone loves cake.
Colette Duarte, Carmel
They sat beside each other silently eating their Chinese food dinner. When they finished, they opened and read their cookie fortunes but did not share them with the other. Her fortune said, “You will soon have a spiritual experience.” This made her happy. As he wheeled her and her oxygen tank back to their nursing home room, he tossed his fortune into the trash. He had never believed those fortunes and this one was no exception. To think a cookie could predict that “You will soon embark on a new journey, alone” when he never went anywhere without her was ridiculous.
Alice Fields, Salinas
A Perfect Union
The lead surgeon approached the bank of microphones. She removed her mask. “I have a brief statement,” she began, managing a smile. The properly masked, socially distanced media pool fell silent. “We found a large cancerous mass, oddly orange in color, pressing relentlessly against the patient’s brain. Fortunately, the tumor was entirely superficial, causing confusion, anxiety and fatigue but failing to penetrate. We removed it all in one cycle. The patient responded beautifully. She’s strong and resilient. Her spirit is unbroken.”
She paused. “Any questions?” “Your name?” “Dr. We, assisted by Drs. The and People. You all know the patient’s name.”
Roy Verley, San Jose
Madame Vice President
For the young girl, this moment was already a memory: the banner rolling across the TV screen a blue wave, reading Biden Elected President. She sat back on her parents’ bed, hands over her eyes; tears falling down her cheeks. The hope was so unfamiliar, she almost misnamed it disbelief—but when she opened them again, there was another face: another banner. Harris Makes History. Madame Vice President. The girl mouthed the words for the first time; tucked them away like a bookmark inside a forgotten novel. “I may be the first,” she heard Harris say. “But I won’t be the last.”
Anastasia Zolotova, Carmel
It was just me and the rooster. The rooster and I. The issue was that he always squawked in the morning and I always wanted more sleep. Tonight I was going to try to put him in a heavy box so he couldn’t see the sun and know it was time to wake me up, and that was the last thing he wanted. We looked at each other dead in the eyes. It felt just like a Western. I made the first move by jumping to the left, but he jumped to the right and got away. Looked like another sleepless night.
Eland Macleod, Aptos
We sat on the dock that morning, watching the sun rise. Just two people, two sisters, two stepsisters, without a care in the world. Everything was perfect. My stepsister was older than me, prettier than me, but was given less attention. She tried to hide her anger and sorrow, but I knew it wouldn’t be long before she cracked. She hugged me and I hugged her back. Before I knew it, I was in the freezing water. Swimming in the middle of a lake with the world spinning around me. My sister was just standing there, smirking.
Dana Pfeiffer, Carmel Valley Juneteenth
He was a babe in arms when they came with what they called The Declaration, which said, “All men are created equal.” His father cried, “We are all going to be free!” He grabbed his baby boy and danced around and said, “My baby boy is going to be free!”
He was on his deathbed when they came around again. He had worked from the time he was five. He had sired 17 children, sold to other plantations. When they said, “There is a Proclamation that slavery is ended,” he shook his head and said, “All my life. All my life.”
Bruce Merchant, Carmel
“Marry me!” she stopped, turned, stared. “Be mine!” She flicked her head like a mare, deciding to rebel or accept. “Who’s name?” “Mine.” I know, dangerous territory. I took a step. “When?” My mind raced. No waiting. She never misses deadlines. “One month.” A breath, my collar in her fist. I kissed her hard. Her eyes opened. I put the ring on her finger. Her hand flexed. She kissed my cheek. “Yes.” Exhaling near my ear as she does. Electric! She sighed then flicked her head like a mare does. “I need a minute,” grabbing her gloves. “The mare’s loose again.”
Dawn Lockwood, Seaside
The back door opened. “Waiting long, your highness?” Impatiently, she brushed past him. Was that sarcasm? She headed straight down the long hall glancing neither left nor right. Inviting aromas, soft cushions, warm fire…all calling her. Pull yourself together, she thought—get this over with once and for all.
At the front door she waited, sensing him behind her. Never look back, never plead. She held her breath.
Slowly, without touching her, he turned the knob. Success!
Out of sight, she dropped to the ground, exhausted. That made three times today.
But then, it was hard work, training a human.
Joan Ambers, Monterey
When Samantha received the postcard, she barely noticed the picture. She noticed, instead, the postmark dated more than a year before, wondering why his final “screw you” message had taken so long to arrive.
His message was that “Jamaica” it seemed “had little interest in laws and the water is fine without you in it.”
Knowing by now, from mutual connections, that he was dead from a plane crash near Cuba two months earlier, her only interest was in what happened to the money he stole.
The postcard told her where to start.
Grieving widow, she packed her black bikini.
Elise Billingsley, Marina
Mrs. Claus set a mug of hot cocoa down.
“No Christmas this year,” Santa pushed the mug away. “Elves can’t make toys from home.”
“Children need hope more than ever,” Mrs. Claus said. “Did the bubonic plague or flu of 1918 stop us? Toys were delivered.” She set a mallett down. Santa touched the handle, exhuming dormant memories. Mrs. Claus wheeled out her dusty sewing machine. “Give me the patterns for Baby Yoda. You’ve got wood trains to make and I’ve got dolls to sew.”
With a twinkle in his eye, Santa lifted his mug of hot cocoa to his wife.
Clark Coleman, Pacific Grove
Candy I Can’t Let You Go
I am small and sweet. Lots of people think that I am foolish but I don’t listen to them because they suck. What am I? I can’t say just yet. You can either purchase me at the store or get me for free at the bank. Humans take me, eat my friends, and throw away their leftovers. People slobber in our faces and don’t apologize after doing so. A wise old owl once asked me how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? But I can’t answer that one, because I’m a Dum Dum.
Lucie Ryan, Marina
He’s coming right at me. Sleek. Fast. Whiskered. Young, hungry, curious. A predator in his depth. His pupils are huge, rimmed by the thinnest white ribbon. They’re trained on mine. Coming closer, closer still. So this is how it happens. At the last moment, in a sliver of space and time skinnier than the ribbon, he banks suddenly, violently, gracefully, a pinniped torpedo with joystick dexterity. He’s gone from smashing into my facemask to fading from view and believability. Some call him sea wolf, others sea lion. How about minister. I keep swimming, swirling his sermon in my head.
Juanita Rose, Seaside
“This, just in. All transportation—except for essential travel—is banned until further notice. Interstates are closed to all but cleared truckers. More at the top of the hour. Stay tuned to KHTS, all the hits, none of the misses.” “What about The Big Surf in Maui?” cries cousin Linney.
Mark and I look at each other, shrug, and turn to big sis Shawna, just arrived, surfboard under one arm, face mask looped on her wrist, pulled off the second she stepped inside. “Guess we’re going to have to start paddling. I hear it’s a long way from Monterey to Maui.”
J.M. Fernhout, Pacific Grove
Her true love. She knew, right as Samatha saw him she knew, she was in love. Samantha and her friends Lilah, and Amanda, were at the mall. Lilah, blabbering about her math test was no match for what Sam was looking at. “Sam!” Lilah yelled, “Are you listening?” “Yes,” Sam murmured. “What are you looking at?” Amanda asked. “NOTHING!” Sam screeched. “It’s Josh,” Lilah spoke confidently. “Nope.” Sam replied. “David?” Lilah chuckled. “No,” Sam blurted. “Jim!” Lilah sang. “YES!” “You like Jim!” Lilah yelled, as Amanda shushed her and said “Really, you and Jim?” “No,” Sam sighed, “I just want that burrito he’s eating.”
Sophie Smith, Carmel
Friends and Neighbors
She has fucking balls. I’ll give her that. Her husband’s been dead a week and she’s having her own estate sale. The garage-sale vultures circling her driveway, fully expecting to be dealing with a neutral third-party. Instead, they’ve got the new widow who, by the way, seems to be taking it all rather well. She should. She killed him and I’m pretty sure nobody but me knows it—certainly not the cops who wrote it off as a random hit and run. I wave her over. Smile as I whisper, “I know.”
Scotty Cornfield, Marina
Man, I’d almost forgotten my mask. So many things to think about now. At the hardware store I imagined everyone could see the marks on my arms, even though they were completely hidden under my clothes. My paranoia again. I went about my business buying rope, nails, lighter fluid. Then back to the house. It always felt great removing the face mask, letting my Neptunian birth marks shimmer in the dark, my green warts breathe. But Earth was my home now. I carried my purchase, aka my dinner, into the kitchen.
Laura Stanco, Seaside
A Lot of Alliteration
Amazing Aunt Althea argued authentically against any artificial augmentation. Beloved Beatrice, baker beholding breads, believed bites bitten beside blue bicycles belong banished before breakfast. Charlene chose chocolate chews. Danielle downs delicious dreamy donated donuts during daily drama drills. Eloise’s enthusiastically enhanced entertainment effusions exhausted even Eleanor. It was a gift and a curse to be able to do this anytime, for anyone else. But her parents left her stuck with Xandra xeroxes xeric Xanthian xiphoid xenoliths, Just one hundred twenty words to choose from in English. She dreamed of changing her name to Sally or Ruth, just for more verbs.
Elise Billingsley, Marina
Johnny was a cowboy with a cool horse. He herded cows with his horse, ate dinner with his horse, and did most things in life with his horse. His horse has been with him for as long as he could remember. One specific Halloween his horse went missing. Johnny loved his horse and wanted to find him. Johnny looked everywhere and couldn’t find them. But, just as he was giving up and about to be sad with his cool cows on his ranch, he found his horse—dressed up as a cow.
Willie Sparano, Monterey
Tea for Two
“Yer a witch?” He narrows his eyes and clenches his fists, fear of the devil swirling beneath his red cap. “Some call me that, yes,” I reply, unsheathing the rose quartz from my neck. “SATAN! EVIL! SIN!” he flails himself with each word, neatly knocking the hat onto his cowboy boots. I yawn, “Yeah, yeah scary stuff. You done?” He stomps away, “YER GOIN TO HELL! I HOPE YOU DIE!” The implication of immortality makes me smile. Nothing but a chuckle as I pluck the sweet purple flower and prepare my frightening witches’ brew: Earl Grey with a hint of lavender.
Mariah Trinity, Marina
Dress to Impress
I waited for weeks in anticipation. Twice a day, like clockwork, I checked the mail. Nothing. Another day. Nothing. My family started to sense my excitement. “Why are you so obsessed?” It’s no big deal,” They would say. “I don’t know, I just am,” was my usual response. I started to lose hope. Was it ever going to come? Eventually, I gave up entirely, accepting the fact that it would never arrive. The very next day, though, when I stepped outside, there it was. My package. I tore it open, I tried it on, and it didn’t even fit.
Hannah Haggquist, Monterey
Can’t Win For Losing
She was ordinary, but if she wore what she wanted to she would be “improper”. If her body was “too skinny” or “too fat” she would be called “anorexic” or a “pig.” If she wore makeup or had a bare face she would be called ugly either way. Every day she went to school she would sit down in the bathroom to eat lunch so no one would notice her. She was used for her smartness from so called “friends.” She would always sit alone on break, waiting for some type of change. But don’t worry, she was just ordinary.
Mahealani Carrasco, East Garrison
Advice for Living
Time…oh the inevitability of it. It’s always happening, no matter how hard you try and stop it. You can’t run, or hide, or reason with it. It’s unrelenting in its pursuit of you. You’ll run, it’ll walk, you rest, it doesn’t—it never stops. There is one thing it wants; you. It won’t stop until your time has come, it’ll wrap around you, and drag you down into whatever depths await you. So as an old hippie to a young man, keep running for as long as you can. Go far, travel wide. And never ever eat the yellow snow.
Kai Carlson, Pacific Grove
The girl drew closer to the map that hung on the wall, curious. “Tea is healthier than coffee,” England said. “Coffee is still better,” America retorted. As they bickered, red seemed to cloud the paper. The map is talking, the girl gawked. And they’re quarreling just like Sophia and I did yesterday. “Bah! You can like tea and I can like coffee,” America said. Britain nodded. The girl stumbled, distracted. Then her eyelids flew open. “We’re late for school,” her mother called. “I need to apologize to Sophia,” the girl announced. Her mother had a confused but soft smile on her face.
Yunah Baek, Monterey
“No, Nino, his name is Knuckles the Echidna, that one is Shadow the Hedgehog.” His stuffies were lined up rollcall-style.
I thought I was beginning to understand. “Metallic Sonic and Shadow the Hedgehog are—”
“Metal,” he stopped me. “Not ‘Metallic.’”
We sat in silence for a minute, waiting for my next question. Somehow, we both knew it would be a dumb one.
“So, Metal Sonic’s the red one?” I finally asked. He got up from the table without a word and got himself a Capri Sun from the fridge. Did I just lead my nephew to drink?
E.J. Solis, Salinas